Building a Digital Archive

Step by step through the digital archiving process

Why Build a Digital Archive?

Digital Archives are the future. In the new information economy, memory institutions (archives, museums and libraries) are inextricably in a process of evolving (DigiCULT Report, p. 90):

  • Archives: From ‘storing objects’ to the management of the life cycle of digital/digitised products
  • Libraries: From ‘reading room’ to digital information service centre
  • Museums: From collections to narrative connections and new experiences

There is no way of turning back the clock on this! As the population adopts digital technologies in every day life, the very pervasiveness of digital media means that to be visible to your audience you must embrace digital technologies and not just for marketing and reaching out. Instead you must welcome them at the heart of your institution or organisation – which is your collection, your content, your narrative. A Digital Archive of some kind must become a fundamental part of who you are and what you do.

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Create a Digital Archive

The best practices section of South Africa’s proposed National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources known as The Digital Heritage Body of Knowledge identified 10 processes for building a Digital Archive. Over years of practically running over 500 digitisation and digital processing projects we have extended this framework to 16 processes.

Planning a Digital Archive

How do you go about building a Digital Archive? There are four steps to prepare:

Scoping seeks to clearly identify the Vision, Mission and Strategic Objectives of the organisation and to align the building of a Digital Archive to those aspects.

The Screening process asks “What, if anything, are you going to digitise (for analogue materials) or digitally process (for born-digital materials)?”

The Selecting process establishes exactly which collections, sub-collections and items will be digitised or digitally processed as part of a particular project. 

Detailed preparation outlines the workflow required to capture and/or process the material at the correct standard and to ensure the necessary financial, human and technical resources are in place to see the project through to the end, within the right timeframe and with minimum wastage.

Creating a Digital Archive

Some steps during the Digital Archiving process:

Building a Digital Archive

The success of a digitisation or digital processing project and the consequent long-term usefulness of a digital archive is built upon the foundation of an ordered approach to the archive in the first place. The analogue or born digital archive needs to have a viable archival arrangement by which it is structured and makes sense in terms of its provenance and subject matter. This step, then, may include a needs assessment, the appraisal of the archive, the organisation of it, its quantification, housekeeping (such as the removal of duplication), itemisation, inventory and archival arrangement.

Capturing is the process of turning an analogue item into digital form and involves a range of capture devices and workflows according to the nature of the source materials.

Processing refers to post-capture enhancements that may be made to a digital file. It may include simple actions, such as renaming, to more radical actions, such as cropping, converting to a preservation file format and ensuring the image is colour correct according to capture targets. This process also applies to processes applied to born digital files ensuring they are in their final state and ready for long-term preservation and use.

Describing is the process of enriching the digitised files with associated information called metadata, such as a caption to a photo or more extensive descriptions, such as full transcriptions or summaries of text.

Preserving a Digital Archive

Once the first step in the digital archiving process, the Digitisation process, is complete, there are essential steps to preserve the digital files:

Generating refers to the process of generating derivatives of the archival master files, usually to create access copies. These may be enhanced files for display on a web interface or thumbnails for display in search results. Many digital repository systems will autogenerate these files upon the ingestion of the master files.

Loading is the process of ingesting digital files into the Digital Repository. At this stage the digital file and its associated information is known as a Submission Information Package (SIP).

Storing involves securing the digital files so that they will be preserved over time against various threats. This includes many copies in many places on many types of storage media – ongoing backups on and off-site at different refresh rates. It’s a real science! At this stage the digital file and associated information is known as an Archival Information Package (AIP).

Migrating is the process by which digital files are continually moved to updated storage media to ensure their ongoing integrity, viability and accessibility. Digital files only exist as derivatives of supporting protocols, systems and infrastructure and those need constant maintenance. That is why keeping anything digitally requires consistent care and attention over the long-term. This process, then, also includes on-going preservation planning.

Sustaining a Digital Archive

And finally, the last phase in the digital archiving prosses, some important steps for sustaining your digital archive over the long term:

It is helpful to think of a digital archive rather like a museum. One of the most famous museums in the world, the Rijksmuseum, has over a million objects. They cannot and do not put all of these objects on display all at once. Rather they reach into those stores and they curate exhibits using select objects from the stores to tell a particular story. Likewise, curation is a vital activity in managing a digital archive and it uses select digital objects to display in exhibits or galleries to tell important stories out of your archive.

Promotion is not optional. Like any digital resource available on the internet, it needs to be promoted. Signposts to it need to be positioned in the places where people are on the internet – search engines, social media apps and websites and in online communities that may be interested in your collection. This is a task that never ends and needs to be built into your thinking and planning about your digital archive.

Accessing is the process whereby the various audiences to whom you have granted permission can access the digital files. This includes the ability to search, discover, engage and select. A file read out of the Digital Repository for delivery to a user is known as Dissemination Information Package (DIP).

Using involves all the processes and procedures around the use of digital files including such considerations such as copyright, moral rights and privacy rights as well as systems and processes around the monetisation of digital files where that opportunity exists.

Africa Media Online has developed a ‘digital trade route’ that provides solutions and assistance at every one of digital archiving steps enabling you to get your collections from your cupboard to the audience you want to reach. Consulting and Training assist with the four preparation processes. Our Digitisation service assists with the digisation processes. And our MEMAT Digital Repository System provides a comprehensive and secure solution for the digital archiving processes.